DETROIT (WXYZ) - Detroit is slipping into darkness. Street lights are out, residents are mad and the city is under increasing pressure to do something?
So what’s the city’s plan?
And when will we see some results?
Action News Investigator Scott Lewis has been exposing this lighting mess for weeks. Now he’s getting some answers from the man in charge of public lighting.
Chris Brown is Detroit’s Chief Operating Officer. Mayor Dave Bing lured Brown out of an early retirement to oversee several critical departments, including public lighting.
Brown told Lewis he estimates 15 to 20 percent of Detroit’s street lights are out, and in some neighborhoods it’s as high as 50 percent.
“It’s embarrassing for me to go into a neighborhood and not see where the lights are on, that’s not something that makes me very happy,” Brown said.
So how did things get so bad, and what is Brown’s plan to fix the problem?
As Action News reported, theft is a major issue. Metal thieves are stealing parts from light poles and selling them for scrap.
Brown says that’s a major cause of Detroit’s street light outages.
“We have these things that are called series transformers that are at the bottom of the pole, and these are being stolen. These are clipped by thieves at the bottom of the pole and they don’t become useable,” Brown said.
Brown showed Action news a large map of the city where red lines have been drawn showing long sections of major streets where transformers have been stolen.
“This is where theft has occurred in this whole area. That’s actually Outer Drive,” Brown said, pointing to a spot several miles long on the map.
“When you have that kind of theft, the issue is how do you replace it?”
Public lighting workers tell Action News the city can’t even buy transformers like the ones being stolen anymore so workers have to cannibalize old parts from the system to get some lights working again.
Outdated equipment is another issue. Brown says many of the city’s light fixtures have mercury in them so when they go out they can’t replace the bulbs.
“They’re mercurial cadmium lights. Mercury is a greenhouse gas. Those aren’t being made any more,” said Brown.
So many of the city’s darkened street lights can’t be repaired simply by replacing a bulb, the entire fixture has to be replaced.
On top of that, the way the streets are wired in Detroit is outdated technology. They’re wired in a series just like the old Christmas tree lights. When one bulb in the string goes out, they all go out. Detroit needs to rewire the entire city with parallel circuits that will keep nearby lights burning when one bulb goes out.
Brown says they are slowly but systematically rewiring sections of the city with parallel circuits, and putting in new poles with modern bulbs in the process. According to Brown, that will also cut into thefts.
“You don’t have that transformer at the bottom of the pole and we’re not kind of chasing that all the time. It’s at the top of the pole and people will have difficulty getting them,” Brown said.
Public lighting workers tell Action News the city hasn’t invested enough money the system for years and that’s a big reason why it’s falling apart.
Chris Brown says it’s more of an issue of where they’ve invested and how wisely. With Detroit’s shrunken population, Brown says his plan is to invest more in densely populated neighborhoods.
“If the neighborhood is a challenged neighborhood, and we want to have one maybe every block, or we have three per block if they’re very dense neighborhoods,” said Brown.
Detroiters want to know when the street lights will work again.
Brown says repairs will be made soon in some neighborhoods but citywide, it’s going to take a while.
“We’re trying to demonstrate that in some of our demonstration neighborhoods quickly. But I think the longer term solution is going to be a year to two years,” Brown said.
City Ombudsman Doreen Brown says she thinks the percentage of inoperable street lights is much higher than the 15 to 20 percent estimated by the city’s Chief Operating Officer. She says she’s also skeptical of the city’s promise to get the lights working because she’s heard it before from this administration and others.
“What they’re very good at is making charts…but not fixing things,” said the ombudsman.
Chris Brown told Action News the Bing administration is also exploring a more radical approach to getting Detroit’s street lights working again. They’re considering getting the city out of the lighting business and finding someone else to take over public lighting.
“The 900 pound gorilla is obviously DTE,” Brown said.
Last week Action News confirmed that DTE Energy is doing an assessment of public lighting and Chris Brown says there could be others interested.
But why would anyone want to take over a system that’s in shambles?
Brown says the Detroit Public lighting Department brings in revenue selling power to government buildings and the Detroit Public Schools and that could make it attractive to an outside